The Full 90

Sporting KC’s promise of youth soccer fields drags on

Sporting KC says it wasn’t responsible for its messy split this week with the Livestrong Foundation over finances.

But the team is acknowledging its failure to fulfill another promise that has nothing to do with Livestrong but everything to do with the public financing of the $200 million soccer stadium that until this week bore the Livestrong name.

In 2010, the team pledged to build nearly two dozen youth soccer fields in Wyandotte County as one condition of the subsidy for the 18,500-seat stadium now known as Sporting Park.

Yet deadlines have come and gone with none of the fields being built so far. Not even their future locations have been identified for three inner-city fields that were supposed to have opened two years ago, or the 18-field, tournament-quality soccer complex that was to have been ready by this past Dec. 1.

Sporting officials insist they still intend to make good on their promise. Construction will begin sometime this year, a spokesman said. Likewise the Unified Government of Wyandotte County/Kansas City expresses confidence that the team will honor its obligations to taxpayers.

But some believe Sporting should have met its obligations by now.

“Sporting has really done nothing to push the issue to build the complex or the three fields to be built in the urban core,” said Jose Zarate, president of both the KCK Soccer Association and statewide Kansas Youth Soccer Association. “But it’s not like the Unified Government has been pushing them to, either.”

Zarate and others characterize the youth fields as the forgotten element of the stadium deal, the only one partly intended to address the shortage of places for kids to play a sport that, for many of them, is ingrained in their culture.

“There is a large Hispanic population in the area,” said state soccer association registrar Danita Hill, “and soccer is their sport.”

The stadium deal was signed in early 2010. In exchange for $230 million in state and local tax subsidies, Sporting made three core commitments.

No. 1, the club would build a state-of-the-art, soccer-specific stadium. Based on the reviews from soccer fans, players and experts alike, the venue has lived up to the hype since opening ahead of schedule partway through the 2011 season.

Secondly, Cerner Corp. (founded by Sporting’s two biggest investors) promised to build new offices within sight of the stadium and bring 4,500 jobs to the surrounding Village West area. That construction is under way and the project is, likewise, ahead of schedule.

Where Sporting has fallen short of scoring a goal is on fulfilling its third commitment.

The three “urban fields” were supposed to have opened for practices and games in time for play in 2011. All were to have lights and be irrigated, according to the club’s agreement with the Unified Government.

The $35 million soccer complex was to have about 18 fields, be located in Wyandotte County Park and “be of a quality and configuration” that could attract national-level soccer tournaments. Documents said it would be paid for by the developers or bond financing issued by the Unified Government.

At a special meeting of the Unified Government Commission on Jan. 19, 2010, Sporting Club CEO Robb Heineman said the complex would likely attract more than 2 million visitors a year.

That still is the vision, albeit delayed.

“This is an ongoing project with the Unified Government,” team spokesman Rob Thomson said. He said the team now believes there may be better places to put the facility than Wyandotte County Park.

“We are trying to select a location to maximize the opportunities for the UG and its citizens,” he said.

Chase Simmons, an attorney with Polsinelli Shughart working on the team’s behalf, said Wyandotte County Park could still work as a last resort.

But one of its shortcomings, he said, is that it’s somewhat isolated. A better location would be on land nearer the stadium where there might be “synergies.” Families attending tournaments would then be closer to restaurants and shopping, and some tournament events might be held in the stadium.

Simmons said the number of fields will depend on the site, but Sporting is still shooting for about 18. The field will be grass on some, unlike a similar complex in Overland Park where all the fields are artificial turf.

Simmons was less specific about the three rec fields. “We’re taking directions from the UG on that,” he said.

Exactly what sort of directions is hard to say. Officials there declined to discuss the fields with any specificity.

The Unified Government’s 2012-2013 budget notes the planned formation of a mayoral task force on “urban soccer fields.” But officials declined to discuss whether such a committee was ever formed or its composition.

If it does exist, no one from the KCK Soccer Association has been asked to be on it, Zarate said.

In response to questions from The Star, Unified Government public relations director Mike Taylor issued a written statement and declined to go beyond it.

“The Sporting KC group is developing some new concepts and ideas related to the tournament and urban soccer fields,” Taylor wrote in part, citing the team’s reputation for creativity and innovation as a basis for the Unified Government’s willingness to countenance further delays.

“Sporting KC executives are taking longer than anticipated as they design a program to reach as many KCK kids as possible and integrate the soccer experience into our parks and recreation in a broad way.”

Look for some details in a few months, he said.